Physical Developments: Early Puberty
American girls are maturing quickly. Learn how to help young children enter puberty with grace.
“Kids grow up too fast these days.” Rising rates of early puberty have turned this most common of parental laments into reality for many American children.
“The ‘classic’ description is that girls start puberty at 10 on average, with a ‘normal’ range of 8 to 12,” says Ernest Post, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist and puberty subspecialist at Cooper Health System in Camden, NJ. According to the most recent figures from the journal Pediatrics, more than 10 percent of Caucasian girls experience breast development, the most common entry to puberty, by the age of 7, a 5 percent jump since the early 1990s. African American and Hispanic girls mature even faster, with nearly 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively, now entering puberty by 7.
These numbers have been widely corroborated and are accepted as fact. Experts are less certain about what’s causing the increase, though theories abound. The following factors are among the most widely debated:
- Childhood obesity
- Hormones in meat and milk
- Endocrine disruptors — chemicals that can affect the body’s ability to produce hormones — found in everyday items like plastic bottles, cosmetics and cleaners (read more about these chemicals here)
- Environmental factors like stress in the home
Of these, the corresponding rise in childhood obesity rates is the basis of most medical agreement. Dr. Post cites a 1970s study that found menarche (the onset of menstruation) to begin on average when a girl reaches 110 pounds. This finding predates the obesity epidemic, but as girls continue to hit this weight milestone sooner, doctors see obesity as a major indicator of early puberty. The Pediatrics report also linked soft-drink consumption specifically to early menarche.
“Yes, statistically [obesity] is a contributing factor. No, it’s not the whole story or the primary change,” says David R. Langdon, MD, FAAP, clinical director of the Division of Endocrinology at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Furthermore, “There is evidence that social and family factors can affect time of puberty. [But] it is impossible to determine these for individual children.”
Hormones in milk and meat have been a discussed factor since 2010, when a handful of babies in China developed signs of puberty after ingesting infant formula allegedly containing bovine growth hormone. Not all medical experts are convinced of the connection, however. Charles Scott, MD, pediatrician at Advocare Medford and past president of the NJ chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, agrees that body mass index impacts physical maturation, yet flatly states: “Hormones in food do not contribute to early puberty.”
Mature responses to early puberty
Whatever the causes, early puberty is an understandable concern for parents who want their daughters to develop a positive body image and refrain from sexual activity until they are mature enough to handle it. Additionally, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health, girls who enter puberty before 12 are at higher risk to develop breast and uterine cancer as adults — and should therefore be cognizant of being screened for these diseases as they get older.
Sometimes, early puberty can be stopped with medication. However, “The majority of patients have nothing wrong with their hormone levels,” says Dr. Post. For most, the emotional impact of this milestone overshadows the physical.
Nurture self-esteem when puberty hits
“It can be emotionally stressful for girls to be different from their peers,” says Charlene Brock, MD, pediatrician at St. Chris Care at the Falls Center, Philadelphia. “Since early puberty means an early growth spurt, if a girl is a lot taller than her classmates, including boys, this can be difficult.”
Dr. Brock stresses that parents should unabashedly welcome a child’s questions about puberty. “A family that keeps the lines of communication open and provides affirmation and support can go a long way in helping the child navigate this awkward period,” she says. “Young girls need to be informed about their bodies and what happens during puberty.
“The road through adolescence is often rocky,” she continues, “and most kids are resilient and adjust without any permanent emotional scars.”
Hannah Morrison is a MetroKids intern and communications student at Temple University.